App points the finger at iron deficiency 2019-01-11T11:10:28+01:00
medical research

A new app is able to detect a blood disorder from a photo of your nails

Are you anaemic? Your phone camera might soon be able to tell you. Scientists in the US have developed a smartphone app which can analyse a photo of your fingernails to indicate if you’re getting enough iron. The algorithm uses the colour of your fingernail beds to determine the level of haemoglobin in your blood.

The researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, published their work in the journal Nature Communications in November 2018.

Anaemia is a very common condition where a person’s red blood cells aren’t carrying enough oxygen around the body. It is most commonly caused by a lack of iron, which is important in the formation of the oxygen-carrying substance haemoglobin.

It affects nearly one in four people around the world according to the World Health Organisation, but is often undiagnosed. Symptoms include tiredness, weakness, lack of energy, chest pain and an irregular heartbeat; although it’s often easily treatable through diet and iron tablets, really severeanaemia can be life-threatening. At the moment, doctors use a blood test to diagnose anaemia (though pulling down your lower eyelids to see how pale they are has long been a home test).

The researchers measured the haemoglobin levels of 237 people – both with and without blood conditions – using a blood test, and took photos of their fingernail beds. They then used this data to develop the algorithm before testing it on 100 new people.

The researchers found that the app provided an accurate assessment of a person’s haemoglobin levels and said that although it should be used for screening, not clinical diagnosis, with additional research they hoped it would become as accurate as a blood test.

Using the app has many advantages: it’s easy, inexpensive and non-invasive, and requires no equipment more complicated than a smartphone, which could be particularly useful for people living in remote areas or developing countries who can’t easily get to see a doctor.

The idea is that patients could also use the app to monitor their condition once they have been diagnosed, so that they know when they need to adjust their medication or even, in the case of severe blood disorders, have transfusions.

The app was developed by Wilbur Lam, a biomedical engineer, clinical haematologist and associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, and biomedical engineering student Rob Mannino as part of the latter’s PhD work.

It was Mannino’s experience living with thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder in which the body produces insufficient haemoglobin, that led him to do the research.

“Treatment for my disease requires monthly blood transfusions,” he explained.

“My doctors would test my haemoglobin levels more if they could, but it’s a hassle for me to get to the hospital in between transfusions to receive this blood test. Instead, my doctors currently have to just estimate when I’m going to need a transfusion, based on my haemoglobin level trends.”

Lam added: “Rob took pictures of himself before and after transfusions as his haemoglobin levels were changing, which enabled him to constantly refine his technology on himself.”

Mannino and Lam are now working with a doctor at the university and the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Centre of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where Lam is a haematologist, to acquire more data and improve the app, which they hope will be available as early as the spring.

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